Maggie: More than 1.5 million Americans need a wheelchair just to get around. But it is often so expensive that many people have trouble paying for one. As Scott Evans shows us, one high school robotics team is hoping to change that by putting their machine-making skills to good use.
Scott: Tim is on a mission. He is the founder of Freedom Chairs, a non-profit organization that builds automatic wheelchairs for people with disabilities – people who need them but can’t afford to pay for them.
Tim Balz: I think for today, we’re going to try to help encourage Steven to try his new chair.
Scott: And nothing can stop him – not even near-zero visibility in severe weather.
Tim: We are, like, a minute away from his house.
Scott: Steven Scholl, a student at Tim’s school, was the first to get a chair from Freedom Chairs and was the inspiration for starting the group.
Tim: So I scoured Craigslist and found a chair that I thought was fixable. And then I couldn’t afford it, so I traded my moped for the wheelchair. And we use a lot of the skills we had in robotics to put a full sound system in it, made it left-handed, gave him a special joy stick, put a hitch on it, put leg rests on it, and basically tricked this kid’s chair out.
Scott: The Freedom Chairs team is made up of members from the Plainfield High School robotics team, and together they collect donated chairs, fix them up, and then find people who need them in their community.
Steven’s mom was shocked when she heard they wanted to give her son his first electric chair.
Ms. Scholl: I had no idea! I mean, it was like a dream come true because there’s no way we could have afforded that.
Tim: These chairs can cost anywhere from $2,000 to upwards of $20,000.
Scott: But for the lucky few that get a chair from Tim and his team, the chairs come at no cost. They won’t even accept donations from families they give to.
Tim: It’s because these people, they feel that they owe us and we don’t think that’s right because it’s us doing our duty and using our skills that we’ve gotten.
Scott: Tim had skills on several different teams. As a freshman, he was a three-sport athlete.
Tim: I did soccer, wrestling, and I did pole vault and track.
Scott: But his sophomore year, a teacher noticed his interest in engineering and convinced him to try robotics instead of sports.
And so you quit all three sports – just quit them – and went to the robotics team?
Tim: Yep. I made the jump, took the decision, and that was the year we started our FIRST Robotics team.
Scott: FIRST is an international league for high school robotics competition. Students who participate get hands-on experience in STEM fields – that is science, technology, engineering and math – while getting the chance to interact with teams from all over the world.
Tim: Well, I realized I loved robotics, and if the only way I was going to do that for my job, for my future, was I had to kind of kick butt in school and hunker down and get my grades up.
Scott: Tim is now a student at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, studying mechanical engineering and robotics. Even his friends say he is an inspiration.
Tim’s friend: I’ve learned a lot watching Tim. And he’s really selfless, you know. And I was kind of a selfish person, I guess. And now I’ve learned that I need to give back more and help people out if I am fortunate enough to be as lucky as I am.
Scott: Freedom Chairs has helped provide chairs for sixty people since it started in 2011. And all that work comes with a feeling Tim says you just can’t replace.
Tim: I have it so good. And if I am able to – just with a little bit of work – change someone’s life in the way that I did here, then why not do it for the rest of my life.
Scott: Scott Evans, Channel One News.
Maggie: Inspired by Tim? Want to make your own impact? Well, make sure to check out our Impact page over at Channelone.com.